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Take a stab April 21st, 2014 by

In the ancestral home of maize, many people plant it with a long, wooden stick with a thick iron blade hafted onto the end. This planting stick has many local names in Central America, but the most common one is chuzo.

Skilled workers gently poke the earth with the chuzo in one hand, and with the other they flick a few seeds into the bottom of the hole (the “chuzazo”) and then they slide out the blade, letting the earth crumble onto the seed. The chuzo is so versatile that farmers can plant a straight furrow on soft, flat land. While on rocky soil they seek out the little pockets of earth between the stones.

This ancient tool hadn’t changed much since colonial times, when the iron tip was added. But in the last five or six years, farmers have learned to do a new trick with the chuzo. They use it to bury fertilizer. For some decades now farmers in Mesoamerica have been putting mineral fertilizer onto their native food crops.

Agronomists eventually realized that much of the fertilizer was washing away with the rain water or evaporating to join the greenhouse gasses. Extensionists began to explain the importance of working the fertilizer into the soil, and farmers were quick to grasp the idea. Agustina López of Ilapa explained that when “one broadcasts the fertilizer, the air owns it. But submerged in the earth, it gives more strength to the plant.” (Si uno lo tira, el aire es el dueño del abono. Pero sumergido en la tierra, le da más fuerza a la mata.)

The suggestion was to bury the fertilizer with the chuzo. Recently some colleagues took me to see Francisco Tupul, in La Máquina, fertilizing a large field of maize, over a hectare, with a chuzo. With the fertilizer in a container strapped to his waste, don Francisco deftly took a small handful of granulated urea, and tossed it into the bottom of the little hole made by the planting stick, 5 centimeters from the sprouting maize plants.

Smallholder farmers are starting to bury their fertilizer, even though it is more work, because it lets them get more maize from less fertilizer. The innovation also reduces environmental damage because less fertilizer is lost to the wind and rain.

Fertilizer can also be buried in a bean field, but it is even more work, than in a maize field, because beans are planted closer together; a field can hold more bean plants than maize plants. Farmers were finding that the day wasn’t long enough to fertilize a bean field with planting sticks, even if they hired labor.

Last week we visited Daniel Choj and his son Elías in Las Muñecas, Guatemala. They showed us a faster and easier way to get fertilizer below ground: they dissolve the granules in water, put the solution into a backpack sprayer, remove the nozzle, and squirt it onto the base of the plants, where the earth absorbs the liquid.

Because the farmers understood why they should bury fertilizer, they were able to improve on the idea. A message has to explain an innovation’s the underlying scientific principles; not just how to do something new, but why it works.

Our colleagues from P4P (Purchase for Progress) who have been spreading these and other innovations, and are now making videos to share the ideas with more farmers.

You can watch an earlier video on burying fertilizer in Africa at http://www.accessagriculture.org/node/249/en/

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